Today’s lectionary excerpt from Philippians 3:4b-14 focuses on Paul, who shares autobiographical highlights. Paul was taught as a rigorous, conservative Jew. He had it all: education, ethnic pride, great deeds, and an admirable personal morality. As for a wife, we don’t know why he didn’t mention that major aspect of his life. It would be highly unlikely that a person with his background would be single. Yet, nowhere can it be confirmed if or when Paul was married. We know that Paul didn’t think highly women, a sad fact revealed when he taught that women should have their heads covered and silent during worship (1 Corinthians 11:6, 14:34).
Paul’s possible sexism aside, it’s notable that he didn’t fill himself with pride about his privileged ethnic heritage. Paul believed that all his socially advantageous qualities were no more than rubbish when compared to the spiritual riches he gained from his relationship with Jesus. Paul confessed “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith” (Philippians 3: 9). Paul is putting his background into a proper perspective by not elevating himself based on his birth status or education.
Although Paul from far from perfect, his words are inspiring because he has shown the futility of relying on religious tradition—a spiritual pedigree if you will—for salvation. Paul presents himself as a model Jew before his conversion to Christianity. So much so that the text suggests that no other Jew could likely exceed his credentials. But after he found Jesus, Paul placed his qualifications in a new context while his critics derided him as a traitor against his Jewish heritage.
The ongoing power of Paul’s words teaches us that obeying the Old Testament Law does not in itself please God. Paul revealed that there is no merit in becoming a fundamentalist of the Jewish legal code. History teaches that those who live in slavish obedience to rule-based religion do so at great spiritual peril (and they end up destroying themselves and others). Both faith and reason demonstrate the futility and foolishness of those who think they are pleasing God by eating or dressing according to a strict religious regimen.
The liberating freedom of conscience and spiritual awakening that comes from faith in God can guide us, as it did Paul. Sadly, for two-thousand years after Jesus’ message, there are still sects attempting to poison the conscience with reliance on heritage and tradition rather than upon a liberating faith in God. People continue to make poor choices, which is why spiritual seekers must be on guard against the pervasive tendency to substitute folly for faith. Paul recognized the hopelessness of relying on his grand, institutional past. But after Paul’s spiritual rebirth, his transformed self-image transcended the smug isolation practiced by his unenlightened critics.
Let us celebrate the spiritual basis of our faith and not enter disputes about the purity of peoples’ ethnicity, heritage, culture or theology. Apart from God none of this brings salvation and the pride it arouses does no good. No, not even an obsessive personal morality that sucks the joy out of life can substitute for God’s love and truth. “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14). Let us therefore express thanks that Paul’s words continue to inspire followers of God to live the best possible life.
–Reverend Larry Hoxey